Chomsky on Iran

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Niusha Boghrati

Worldpress.org, August 5, 2009

Q: Mr. Chomsky, you have supported the civil movement of the Iranian protesters. In the first place, what makes you do that?

A: Well, I think they’re right to protest the prosecution of political prisoners, violent repression, and other autocratic authoritarian procedures of the Iranian regime.

Q: Iran has been among the headlines for years now, although this time seems to be hugely different. This is among the very few occasions that the people of Iran are making the news, and not the government. What was your personal impression, when you first saw the images, coming out of cell phones in Iran. Did you ever expect something like this to happen?

A: No, but I haven’t predicted the other popular uprisings in Iran, either. I didn’t anticipate the 1979 uprising, and I do not know anyone else who did. U.S intelligence certainly didn’t. There have been many others as well. There have been major protests against the Shah; there have been protests against this regime. And that goes far back. Iran indeed has a tradition of popular protest against repression and so on.

Q: That actually leads me to the next question; Iranian people have been under constant repression and abuse — as the critics put it — for decades. But how come they have staged this huge protest now? Not for the vivid abuses, or even for the stinging economic condition, but for a democratic value: their vote. What do you make of that, Professor Chomsky?

A: Well, you can ask the same question about the Shah. How come Iranians did not have a major protest, huge enough to force the army to back off, until 1979? You can’t really know. I mean, popular protests are not predictable. How come the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere, the most repressed population of the people in the hemisphere, did not really have a major uprising at a scale that took over the country until 2000, 2005, in Bolivia? Why wasn’t there a massive civil rights movement until 1960? You know, there were rights movements, but nothing like that scale. These things happen, and there are a lot of factors that contribute, not a single one. In Iran, for instance, there was much repression during the 1980’s, under Mousavi, in fact, but Iran was at war during that time. It had been attacked by Iraq with the support of the United States and the other Western powers. Hundreds of thousands of people had been killed by chemical weapons and other crimes. That is not the time that you rise up against the regime.

Q: Then, talking about the recent uprising, what impact do you think the meaning of “vote” and their democratic choice had on Iranians in terms of pushing the protests?

A: Sure, it had a lot to do with that. Well, you know there was no protest in 2005 [against the outcome of the previous election], maybe some, but nothing at this scale for sure. In this [current] period there, in part of a large part of the population, we don’t know much about the internal structure, and you can debate exactly who or how, but there was an expectation that this election would somehow be different, and there would be opportunity for change, which certainly a substantial part of the population wants. But those hopes were dashed. The election results, both the manner in which they were presented and the numbers that came out, really lacked credibility, and many people thought they were inaccurate, so they rose in protest. But to predict such protests has never been possible; too many factors are involved. Nobody that I know predicted it in this case.

Q: This one is not a new question, it has been repeated over and over throughout the history: People protest, they get clamped down and even shot, but yet again they’re back on the streets. Is it still the vote — for instance in Iran’s case — that matters so much, or does the motive transform itself into a kind of moral obligation at some point? What is the psychological explanation for that?

A: I don’t think there is any generalization about that. Things are different, situations are different, and people react differently. Let me give you an example. Take Intifada in Palestine. Nobody predicted it. Israeli occupying forces had extensive, detailed information about the population under its occupation, but they had no idea that it was going to happen. The P.L.O. apparently had no idea it was going to happen. But then when it started, it just took off. And it lasted until violent repression was sufficient to destroy it. These things are not predictable or explainable. They start at some point, then other factors might get involved and demands might get larger. In some cases they succeed, too. Take Bolivia, which I mentioned earlier. There were major popular protests among the indigenous poor in 2000, and in that case it was pretty much focused on a particular issue: water rights. There was effort to privatize water, which would have priced it out of the reach of the population. It was a starting point, but that was just part of an accumulation of grievances. They happened to rise up at that point. And after that came more years of activism and organization, and it continued until finally in 2005 the indigenous majority, for the first time in 500 years, since the invasions entered the political arena, won an election.

Q: Speaking of succeeding, Mr. Chomsky what do you think will happen if the current protests in Iran would not succeed? What is the psychological outcome of that for the protestors? Will they feel they have lost the game, or will the very essence of making their voice heard in Iran and around the globe keep them satisfied?

A: Well, you know, one striking fact about the commentaries since the protests is how much commentary there has been, which has an air of confidence from people who know almost nothing about Iran. In fact, the few people who really know something about Iran, most of them have been speaking with much less confidence, for good reasons. Now I am not going to add to the confident predictions by people who don’t know much about Iranian society. Even in the society that I live in, the United States, were I have worked as an activist for all my life, I couldn’t make confident predictions about questions like that. Too much is involved.

Q: As the last point, Professor Chomsky, do you have anything in particular to say to the Iranians who are protesting? Do you have a message?

A: Well, protests against the nature of the regime … It’s a clerical, military regime. Putting aside the details of the election, about which we do not know much, the whole structure of the regime is oppressive and authoritarian and undermines basic civil and other human rights; and protesting against it is not only honorable, but courageous, because it faces extreme violence. So, yes, I have to honor what they are doing. People have different motives, different goals, but the fundamental core of the protests against keeping political prisoners, against repression, against torture, against narrow clerical, military control, sure, that should be opposed. Actually I think we should oppose it in the United States, too. I mean, in the West, people talk rightly about Iran as a guided democracy. There are some democratic freedoms, but it’s under tight control. The Guardians Councils, for example, selects the candidates. But what happens in the West? In the United States, for example, it’s obvious for anyone who studies the system, the candidates are selected by concentrations of private power. Elections are basically bought. So we also have a kind of guided democracy. Well, we should be protesting against that, too. I am not saying that the United States is Iran; of course it’s not. But there are repressive features in every society I know of, which should be protested.